Photos of Sara Tawab Umar, the Assistant Commissioner of Peshawar, have hit the news. She is making rounds of the city with her child in tow. Another photo shows her at her desk, doing paperwork with the baby in her lap. The child’s carrycot is on her desk, which is strewn with toys and files. Images like these are crucial for ambitious women in the country, representations of working mothers who are juggling their careers with motherhood and make no bones about it. Umar’s photos have been met with a reassuring tide of acclaim, and while it is more common for women in public office to bring their children to work abroad, like Jacinda Ardem does, Pakistan is still light years behind. Benazir Bhutto used to bring her children along while fulfilling her duties as prime minister but those years feel distant now. Many workplaces still don’t offer childcare on the premises for employees’ children, and maternity leave is still only three months in the places that actually extend it. But Umar’s photos also highlight the dark side of motherhood for working women: the lack of support from partners.

One cannot, obviously, speak for Umar’s domestic set-up. Maybe this was a one-off on one of those days when everyone who helps with the baby is unavailable. Maybe it was a photo-op, or just another day in her life. But when one sees mothers who have to bring their kids to work, one can’t help but question the great let-down of modern society: women who can “have it all”. It’s the biggest scam of this age, telling women that they can balance work and the home and do it well, without any support from their partners. Correspondingly, who is telling men to balance their work-home life? Nobody. Men carry on the way they always have, using work as a shield against having to participate domestically. Women, on the other hand, are guilted either way: you have an education but you chose to stay home? You’re a burden on colleges and a waste of a degree. You have children but you work outside the house? You’re negligent of your duties as a mother and ambition is just greediness for money- that’s what men are for! Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, women are perpetually caught between guilt of one kind or another. Men, on the other hand, rarely feel guilt for spending time outside the house. Obviously not all men, but one would be hard-pressed to find a man who agonizes over the effect his work life is having on his children’s psyche.

Ms Umar having to bring her baby to work shows her to be the brave, competent and practical woman she no doubt is. Small children need looking after, full stop. If there’s nobody to help, you help yourself and hats off to you for finding a way. But why should a woman in a position of responsibility have to do it at all? It’s awkward to have to work with a child in tow. It is tiring and distracting, even in the best of situations. Where is the support for working women? It’s not enough to just “allow” women to work—that great lofty ‘permission’ many families are so proud of. “Allowance” is basically an absence of interference, not an extending of action that genuinely helps and enables women to succeed. Women are supposed to be so grateful for this non-interference that they are meant to never ask for more beyond it. And so scores of women all over the world and in Pakistan are up at dawn making breakfasts and packing lunches, hauling children out of beds and wrestling them into uniforms, going to work, racing home to supervise homework and dinner. Women are leaving work early to pick up vomiting children, going to parent teacher meetings during lunch and juggling a thousand balls because this is the only way they can work and have families—by perpetually being on the brink of chaos. Men who help here and there—making the occasional breakfast, dropping kids to school, taking them to the occasional birthday—are lauded like princes. Instead of setting the bar higher for fathers, we praise them to high heaven for doing the absolute minimum while expecting women to jump through eighty hoops of fire every day, and still be told “well, all women do it”.

Men’s work is still, as ever, given first priority. Women’s work is not. It’s a matter of fairness, at the end of the day. If women are expected to do the domestic thing and enable men to do their office thing, then men should be enabling women reciprocally. When men help women, they are truly supporting them in a meaningful way. The biological imperative is stifling; just because women have a uterus doesn’t mean they can’t want more than just childcare. Women have a right to use their intelligence and education to contribute to the workplace, just as men do. Nobody is born a parent and having children doesn’t automatically rewire one’s brain to suddenly have no ambition any more. We don’t expect men to drop their entire life’s work when they become fathers, but somehow it’s all right—even encouraged—for women to do the same? Ms Umar is inspiring, but part of that inspiration should be for men—it should be a reminder that they need to step up as parents. Real support happens when women can do their jobs properly because their partners have their back. Women do this all the time; its high time they were given some reciprocity.

 

The writer is a feminist based

in Lahore.

 m.malikhussain@gmail.com